Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/12/06/wikipedia_bio/

Who owns your Wikipedia bio?

Web's favourite RPG hits the headlines

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Media, 6th December 2005 04:57 GMT

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, made another rare public relations concession as he took to the cable news networks today. Once again, it's Wikipedia that's giving the web a bad name.

Wales says the venture will tighten up its rules, preventing anonymous users from creating articles. However anonymous edits to existing articles will still be permitted, and articles in the system that have been edited anonymously will remain. And accountability remains elusive: "editors" can still hide behind pseudonymous identities.

It's a public relations surrender to John Seigenthaler, a 78-year old former assistant to Robert Kennedy who published an article in USA Today last week describing how his Wikipedia page had been vandalized and the edits gone unnoticed for several months. The changes suggested he had been "suspected" in the assassinations of both RF and JF Kennedy, and also falsely stated that he had lived in the USSR for 13 years.

"We live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research, but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects," Seigenthaler told the New York Times.

He wasn't convinced by the concession. Wikipedia will either have to fix the problem or will lose whatever credibility it still has, he told AP's Dan Goodin.

But Seigenthaler is not the only high profile figure to discover Wikipedia's potential as a multi-user graffiti board.

Few Norwegians are now unfamiliar with the site, after it won a publicity bonanza this month thanks to coverage on TV and in the national press. Unfortunately, it wasn't the kind the Wikipedians might have wished for. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg found himself labelled a paedophile who had served prison time for his offenses. Both facts were false.

In Seigenthaler's case, the delay was long enough for the false allegations to be replicated widely. Wikipedia is a prime candidate for "site scraping", and dozens of sites, most of which are created by spammers, make use of its content.

Game on

There are many ways to think of Wikipedia. For its supporters, it's an "emergent" sign of "collective intelligence". But former Brittanica editor Robert McHenry has a more useful metaphor.

"It's got the public playing the encyclopedia game," he told us recently. "It's also like playing a game in the sense that playing it has no consequences. If something goes wrong, you just restart. No problem!"

In fact, we can extend the metaphor further, by looking at Wikipedia as a massively scalable, online role-playing game, or RPG. Players can assume fictional online identities - and many "editors" do just that. And drive-by shootings are common.

But the rules of the game are shifting, complex, and far from transparent.

A case in point. After Seigenthaler's article was tainted, Wikipedia defenders castigated him for not fixing his own entry. This merits an article in itself, and we'll leave aside questions of morally responsibility merely to note that the Byzantine complexities of defending an edit are enough to repel any sensible person from getting involved. As documentary maker Jason Scott describes here:

It's that there's a small set of content generators, a massive amount of wonks and twiddlers, and then a heaping amount of procedural whackjobs. And the mass of twiddlers and procedural whackjobs means that the content generators stop being so and have to become content defenders. Woe be that your take on things is off from the majority.

So what are the rules are about editing your own entry? The Wikipedia biography guidelines ("WP:BIO") list only criteria for inclusion. The Vanity Guidelines suggest the article should be "not overtly promotional."

Let's take three, contradictory examples.

#1 - No: The Case of Daniel Brandt

When veteran activist Daniel Brandt objected to his entry, he found himself in a new and frenetic part of the game. Brandt had earned the hostility of the game players by attacking one of their favorite sites, Google.

(The busiest Wikipedia players are also supporters of a predictable range of techno utopian causes, for example blogs and 'Creative Commons', which are defended with a religious zeal.)

The "WP:CIV" rule was suspended, Brandt was ejected, and the Wikipedia "editors" lined up to mock him for his impertinence.

"Let's all point and laugh!" wrote one, 'Ta Bu Shi Da Yu'.

"Poor baby" wrote 'Superm401'.

"Whiny and baseless," added 'Linuxbeak'. "He can cry about this until the cows come home".

(Brandt was inspired to start a site, 'Wikipedia Watch', where he recounts the experience. He says he simply wished to remove the entry, but the request was declined by Jimmy Wales).

Conclusion:

From this example, we can conclude that you can't edit your own entry if you are not a Wikipedia fan, or display any criticism of the project.

#2 - Maybe: The Case of Jimmy Wales

The rules are rather different if you're closely involved in Wikipedia itself. Jimmy Wales has made many edits to his own entry without falling foul of the rules he helped devise. More than once he has removed a credit to Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger. Again, here and here.]

Wales also assiduously removes explicit use of the word 'pornography', and even 'erotica' in reference to his porn operation Bomis.com, for which he prefers the term "search portal".

Last week former MTV host Adam Curry was caught making similar edits to the history of podcasting.

Wales signs one of his own edits with the instruction -

"Please do not change it back without consulting with me personally."

Conclusion:

From this example, we can conclude that you can edit your Wikipedia entry - if you are a co-founder of the Wikipedia project.

#3 - Yes: The Case of Cory Doctorow

But what if you are not the founder, but merely sympathetic to the Wikipedia cause?

In the case of one Cory Doctorow, the answer appears to be an emphatic yes.

"The picture is horrible. Any chance of a less supercilious looking one?" asks a fan. "I think this one is better..."

Not good enough, thinks Doctorow.

"The one you think is better is the one the original poster was complaining about (and it's about 4 years out of date) -- Cory"

Off goes the fan, and soon another offering is made at the shrine, and this one wins the subject's approval.

"PS: I think the photo is great" enthuses Doctorow.

One happy Wikipedia subject

At one stage a Wikipedian questions the masturbatory exercise:

"Frankly it's a little discomforting to have the subject write about himself."

This earns a snappy rejoinder:

"I don't see why not -- it's abundantly clear that I have more domain expertise on things like 'Cory Doctorow's views on copyright' and "the commercial fortunes of 'Cory Doctorow's books' than you do", writes er, ... Cory Doctorow, who adds -

"The Amazon sales-rank example (which I believe you inserted to begin with) is nonsensical and proves nothing. I've cut it."

Then, bizarrely, we discover that the references to the self-references were removed because they violate the Self-Reference policy.

(If only the EFF had a self-reference policy...)

Conclusion:

From this example, we can conclude that you can edit your Wikipedia entry - but it will leave you looking very silly indeed. Which probably wasn't what you had in mind when you set out to buff up your reputation.

Why bother?

Where faith triumphs rationality, it isn't unusual to see cult-like characteristics emerge. You could conclude that Groupthink is one of the surefire "emergent properties" once a web initiative is described as "emergent". The enforcement of Wikipedia's biographical guidelines seems less random and more like a loyalty test for participants.

"The results are ... handled by selective enforcement, where popular people are given a pass, while strict wording can be used against those less popular. Moreover, the implications can quickly become perverse, in favoring those with friends who are comfortable with Wikipedia - or perhaps those who are skilled at constructing sock-puppets," observes Seth Finkelstein, in an ongoing discussion.

Or as Brandt puts it:

"All the rules are cancelled if they like you, and all the rules are enforced up the hilt if they hate you."

One thing appears to be certain. Trying to massage one's reputation out on the toxic wastelands of the web can go one of two ways. If the attempt is successful, it leaves you looking as foolish and vain as Doctorow. If unsuccessful, it guarantees an energy-sapping defeat.

The real loser of the Seigenthaler episode in the short-term is the web. In the longer-term, both Seigenthaler and Wales agreed yesterday, there's a greater danger that government will step in and demand media regulation. What an ironic legacy from these unwitting Utopians.®

Related links

Seigenthaler and Wales on CNN [transcript]

Wikipedia Review

Wikipedia Watch's page